ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays’ season began with so much promise. They jumped out to a record-tying 13-0 start and won 30 of their first 39 games, pairing a potent offense with their typically unrelenting pitching. They then spent the entire 185-day regular season in position to make the postseason.
But when they finally reached the playoffs, they looked nothing like the 99-win club that overcame everything thrown their way over the last six months. Their fifth straight trip to the playoffs consisted of two days, one run and another disappointing finish, as they were swept out of the American League Wild Card Series with a 7-1 loss to the Rangers on Wednesday afternoon at Tropicana Field.
“They just outplayed us,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We probably didn't do ourselves any favors, but that's a good Rangers team over there, and we just got outplayed.”
The Rangers are moving on to face the AL East champion Orioles in the AL Division Series. The Rays will stay home, forced to spend the offseason with the bitter aftertaste of a seven-game losing streak in the postseason and another productive season that ended too soon.
For all the Rays accomplished and overcame while posting the AL’s second-best regular-season record to Baltimore, they have reached a point where playing this time of year should be the expectation. Success in October is the goal, and Tampa Bay has not yet achieved it. It is now 4-14 in its past 18 postseason games, with losses in nine of its past 10.
“I mean, that does suck. You'd rather be playing your best ball in October than you would be throughout the rest of the year,” shortstop Taylor Walls said. “But 162 is tough, man. You can't ever overlook the success we've had throughout those amount of games throughout the past few years. It sucks that we get in these situations and we just fell short the past couple years.”
Tampa Bay has made nine trips to the postseason since a worst-to-first turnaround in 2008. Two of those appearances (‘08 and ‘20) ended with losses in the World Series. The Rays didn’t advance past the ALDS in any of the other seven, including each of the past three years.
The Rays lost a four-game ALDS to the Red Sox after their 100-win campaign in 2021, and they have been swept in the Wild Card round each of the past two years. They have exited quickly and quietly, saying their goodbyes in the clubhouse while their opponent celebrates across the ballpark.
“The first step is obviously getting in, and the more frequently you get in, hopefully things happen,” reliever Pete Fairbanks said. “It's tough, but it's hard to win games when we kind of played like we did these past two days.”
Granted, the team that lined up along the first-base line before Game 1 on Tuesday had little resemblance to the one that steamrolled opponents through April and May. Fourteen of the 26 players on the Rays’ Wild Card Series roster were not on the Opening Day active roster. They were without several key contributors, including three of their top starting pitchers, All-Star shortstop Wander Franco, second baseman Brandon Lowe and outfielder Luke Raley.
But that did not fully explain or excuse the Rays’ performance, Cash said.
“We are who we are, and we finished the regular season with the guys that we had,” Cash said. “I still feel that we could have had a better showing with the roster that we had.”
The Rays scored only one run all series, and it was far too little and too late by the time Josh Lowe came home on a Curtis Mead single that chased Rangers starter Nathan Eovaldi with two outs in the seventh inning. All it did was snap a scoreless streak that spanned 33 innings dating back to last year’s Wild Card Series in Cleveland, the second-longest postseason scoring drought in AL/NL history, behind only a 34-inning streak by the Dodgers from 1966-74.
“We did the best we could. We couldn't get it done. It's unfortunate,” first baseman Yandy Díaz said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “We couldn't get any hits. We made a few errors, and that's what happened.”
Last year, as the Rays lost a two-game series to the Guardians by a combined score of 3-1, it was easy to point to an ice-cold lineup as the reason for their early exit. But this was more of a collective effort.
Their offense disappeared again in this series, but they also played terrible defense with four errors in Game 1, plus another costly one in the fifth inning of Game 2. They didn’t get enough out of their top two starting pitchers, either, as Tyler Glasnow walked five batters in his Game 1 loss, and right-hander Zach Eflin surrendered five runs (four earned) on eight hits over five innings in Game 2.
To say it was uncharacteristic would be an understatement. To say it was frustrating would be an even greater one.
“The last two games sucked. It is what it is, honestly,” Brandon Lowe said. “It wasn't our baseball. It wasn't what we expected out of ourselves.”